- The Washington Times - Friday, December 10, 2010

By Laurence Cosse
Translated from the French by Alison Anderson
Europa Editions, $15 416 pages

In a city like Washington, D.C., that has seen too many good bookstores close their doors and paper up the windows, this novel will strike a very receptive chord.

Here’s the plot, such as it is. Ivan (also called Van) is a youngish man who loves good fiction as much as life itself, maybe more. He invariably gets fired from a string of bookstores because his selling, stocking and ordering practices eventually reflect that view.

He is working at yet another bookstore in Meribel (a picturesque French village with many ski resorts) when Francesca, a beautiful, slightly older, aristocratic woman comes in and he discovers a literary soul mate.

Van has the dream, Francesca has the money, and months later, they have their dream bookstore - in Paris, of course - which they call The Good Novel because that’s all they will sell.

Their joint manifesto: “We have no time to waste on insignificant books, hollow books, books that are here to please. … We want books that are written for those of us who doubt everything, who cry over the least little thing, who are startled by the slightest noise. We want books that cost their authors a great deal, books where you can feel the years of work, the backache, the writer’s block, the author’s panic at the thought that he might be lost …. We want splendid books, books that immerse us in the splendor of reality and keep us there. …We want good novels.”

But which of all the world’s good novels (written in or translated into French) should they stock? To answer that sticky question, they establish a secret committee made up of eight writers they both admire greatly, each of whom submits a list of 600 novels, and, once collated, that’s what The Good Novel stocks and sells. Location is of crucial importance, but the ever-resourceful Francesca just happens to own a charming small building on Rue Dupuytrene, the same street where Sylvia Beach opened Shakespeare & Co. in 1920, and she spares no expense in reshaping it.

The Good Novel opens to rave - no, ecstatic - reviews from customers and critics alike and is soon a profitable venture with many customers both in line and online eager to buy its wares. Van, a retiring sort by nature, becomes a minor star on French television because his interviews are obviously from a heart filled with love for excellent novels. His heart also is filled with love for a beautiful but very reticent young woman named Anis, but that’s a subplot.

Life, even in fiction, being what it is, not everyone loves The Good Novel. Among its increasingly vocal opponents are those top-of-the-best-seller-list authors (and their publishers) whose books the store will not stock. In an attempt to be fair, TGN will order the latest James Patterson (or that of his French cousin) for you if you really want it, and you’ll have it quickly, but carry it and its like? Never.

The first attacks come in the form of open letters in the best papers. They’re signed, but not by the actual writers, who accuse the store of being elitist. Others take up the cry, and soon customers are purposely clogging the lines to the cash registers to request the kinds of books not available in this kind of bookstore. Eventually, the still-secret opposition opens not one or two, but three competing bookstores on the same street: The Pleasurable Novel, The Excellent Novel and For Every Taste.

Van and Francesca counter all of these moves as best they can, but as the book opens, we learn the worst of it: Four members of the supposedly secret committee are attacked in their home areas, and several of them are almost killed. Finally, the once intrepid booksellers go the police, and the investigation of one Detective Heffner is, in effect, the framework of the novel.

Even though his search eventually is rebuffed by judicial higher-ups, he stays on the case, but the damage has been done. While Van soldiers on, Francesca’s spirit is broken. No surprise there after her rich and hugely successful French businessman husband sums up her noble effort: “I told you so. It was a foregone conclusion. If I’ve learned anything in thirty years of business, it’s that quality doesn’t win, in the long run, only trash. You can see it in every domain. Low-end electrical appliances, dirt-cheap clothing, journalism that’s increasingly hollow, that’s what wins. Publishing is no exception. Look at who the stars of the novel are these days. …”

By the end of this often captivating book, I found myself wishing it had been shorter and that Ms. Cosse had not beaten me (softly) over the head with her main point so many times. I also found the ending both too sentimental and too predictable. But that’s not what stays with you. What is so powerful, addictive almost, is the love of good fiction that permeates most of the pages, whether it’s in the exchanges between Francesca and Van about beloved authors, or the descriptions of the customers who are still avidly reading and almost have to be pushed out the door each night at closing time. And of course, it’s all set in Paris, where so many wonderful ghosts still fill the pages of our imaginations.

Laurence Cosse was a journalist in Paris for a number of years before she turned to the writing of, mostly, historical novels. She has employed satire before (notably in her mystery “A Corner of the Veil”) and one can’t help but wonder if she isn’t settling some old scores with several of the portraits in this, her ninth, novel.

John Greenya is a Washington-area writer.

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